His recent accolades include an EY Entrepreneur of The Year award in October and in March he was elected President of the Singapore Institute of Architects. But when your name is Ong Tze Boon, and you are the younger son of Singapore’s fifth President, Ong Teng Cheong, and architect Ling Siew May, earning professional recognition is simply all in a day’s work.
Having taken stewardship of Ong&Ong — the firm founded by his parents in 1972 — when it was purely an architectural practice with 60 employees in 2001, the Rice University-trained architect has over the last decade transformed it into a one-stop, cross-disciplinary design centre with a staff of nearly 1,000 spread across eight countries.
When you took over Ong&Ong Architects, one of the earliest things you did was to introduce changes such that the company would no longer operate like a family-run business. Why was this step necessary?
I recently realised that the saying 富不过三代 (wealth does not last beyond the third generation) is not just a Chinese notion. I was talking to a friend, a German businessperson, and he said the exact same thing to me — that Germans believe wealth doesn’t cross the third generation.
So, the question I always raise to everyone is: What is your exit plan? If yours is a patriarchal business, is your exit plan to pass it on to your children? And if so what makes you think your children want it? I’m not saying there’ll be no third, fourth, or fifth generation to succeed you, but what do you put in place so that whether or not the next generation is keen, the firm is ready to carry on with or without a family member. When my mother and father passed on, the biggest challenge was that the company had little succession plan in place. So I had to move it from a patriarch-led firm where a towkay (boss) says, “jump”, and everyone says, “how high”, to a company run by professionals and where management and ownership are two different things.
In 2012, you and your brother started the Ong Foundation. Was it a way to honour your parents perhaps?
As a company, [Ong&Ong] has always received requests ranging from wheelchairs to food allowance. But attending to all the requests becomes a full-time job. Now when we get any donation requests, we will write back and say our foundation will address your needs. Hopefully in five to 10 years’ time, the scale will be bigger. And yes, it’s also a respectable way for us to honour our parents.
While yes, you are an architect, you could have practised anywhere. Yet you made Ong&Ong your life, winning an EY Entrepreneur of The Year award along the way. Did you not feel free to do other things?
I felt a measure of obligation. I never knew whether I would succeed until now. In fact, I do public talks and people ask this same question and I tell them the truth: Sometimes we just find ourselves at a crossroad. You look left, then you look right, and you make a decision. And behind you is everyone waiting for that decision. I have to be honest and say that I don’t know if any of my decisions [made on behalf of Ong&Ong] were correct, but on the balance, things turned out all right. But in answer to your question, aside from my school days, the only thing I know from my formative years of life — from my late 20s to today — is this.
Who is Ong Tze Boon the person, as opposed to Ong Tze Boon the Group Executive Chairman?
I grew up with a very different childhood. I wasn’t scarred, I wasn’t bullied, but I did grow up with biased viewpoints. If I scored a B in school, people around me would go: “Ha ha, he got a B”. The expectation is that I would get an A. It’s the shadows of the family.
Army was no different. When the sergeant said, “gentlemen, can I have a volunteer please,” I would sit there like the other guys and keep my head down. But I’d be called on. Why? Because the sergeant wanted to he didn’t practice favouritism. So I grew up having to attend to people’s expectations. Sometimes I would rebel and say why should I? Other times I would guai guai (be obedient) go with it. I’m fine taking accountability when I’m wrong, but there are people who will say: “What kind of family brought you up?” My father is was a respectable man, and his shadow was quite big. So to answer your question, outside of Ong&Ong, who am I? I struggled with that for a while.
How did you push past that?
I think I grew up trying to behave. I was always cheeky, exploratory, and always tried to push the boundaries to see if I get can away with it. Sometimes I would, sometimes I wouldn’t. Then I came out to the real world to work. One day a reporter like yourself wanted to interview me. And I went to my mother and said: “Mum, I’ve got an interview. But I’m really not up for it. You know what they want. It’s not going to be about me, it’s about what it’s like to be in the shadow.”
So my mum said to me: “Son, if I were you, I would take the interview regardless. A day will come when nobody wants to interview you.” That got me thinking — is it a bane to be in the shadow, or is it a blessing? So the real person behind it all is someone who is starting to appreciate it a little bit. Like I said, Ong&Ong is my life, but I’m still that adventurous, cheeky child.
What kind of cheeky things did you use to get up to?
I was very naughty. Put it this way — when I was in primary school I would really push the limits until the school principal buay tahan (unable to withstand it). You know, like hide behind the classroom door, and jump out as the teacher walks in. That kind of cheeky where you are just trying to see what you can get away with. As expected my PSLE marks were shocking, and I was posted to the N-Level stream. I was such an embarrassment to my parents. But within four years, I went from N-Level to O-Level to SAP student. So I tell people I’m a late bloomer.
Are there still shadows now?
It’s a different shadow. It’s now more than a decade that my parents passed away. And when a general election comes around I get emails that ask: “Are you running for politics? Why not follow in your father’s footsteps.” Is that considered a shadow? I suppose it’s a faint one. People love him and miss him dearly.
Would you go into politics?
At this hour, no.
So you might consider it in the future?
Well, I don’t know what the future holds.
PHOTOGRAPHER WEE KHIM
FASHION DIRECTOR JOHNNY KHOO
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT TERENCE LEE
FASHION ASSISTANT MICHELLE KOK
HAIR AND MAKE-UP ARTIST ELAIN LIM USING URBAN DECAY